“Women with the Gun”: American Women Journalists and the Women’s Battalion of Death




IN 1917, Rheta Childe Dorr, one of the leading journalists of the Progressive era and the first editor of The Suffragist, decided to spend three months in Russia in order to witness “the great changes” taking place there. Upon returning to the United States in August 1917, Dorr quickly published a memoir entitled Inside the Russian Revolution[1] While the book covers her observations of the political, social, and economic turmoil of that period, what is most striking about it is that Dorr devotes four whole chapters to the question of the “woman with the gun.” Dorr uses the term to refer to the Russian women who had volunteered to join the so-called “Women’s Battalions” and describes these units as “the most amazing development of the revolution, if not of the world war itself.” [2]

When Dorr refers to the Russian Revolution, she means the events of February and March 1917, when the Russian tsar abdicated and the liberal Provisional Government was formed. The Russian Army, exhausted and demoralized by the first three years of World War I, still held the Eastern front against 147 German divisions. [3] Too many soldiers were deserting, and the government was at a loss for solutions. Into the void stepped a peasant woman named Maria Bochkareva. [4]

Born into poverty and misery, Bochkareva married at 15 in order to escape an abusive father — only to end up with an abusive husband. She ran out on him and tried to start an independent life. When her second, common-law husband was sent to prison and then into exile in the Arctic North, Bochkareva followed him. In 1914, in a fit of jealousy, her husband attempted to hang her. At this point, she later wrote in her memoirs, she felt utterly lost, not knowing where to turn. It was then that she heard a voice instructing her: “Go to war to help save thy country!” [5] She followed that call of “unselfish sacrifice” and petitioned the government to allow her to enlist in the Imperial Army in order to protect Mother Russia against Germany in World War I. Her original request was denied, and Bochkareva was accepted into the army only after appealing personally to the tsar. Once at the front, she took a man’s name — Yashka, the Russian diminutive for Yakov (or Jacob). Bochkareva adapted well to the male environment, winning the respect of her fellow soldiers. By 1917, she had been awarded for her bravery, and had obtained the rank of senior noncommissioned officer. [6]

Legend has it that in the spring of 1917 she presented the idea of an all-female battalion to Alexander Kerensky, then the Russian minister of war. In her memoirs, Bochkareva specified that it was actually Mikhail Rodzyanko, then president of the Russian Duma, who brought the “little heroine” to the soldiers’ delegates’ session in the Petrograd’s Taurida Palace. There, Bochkareva conceived of the idea of the Women’s Battalion; it would set a patriotic example for the fractious nation, and it would shame men into returning to the front lines. [7] Kerensky and General Brusilov, the commander in chief of the Russian forces, both supported the idea. Nearly 2,000 women of all backgrounds responded to Bochkareva’s initial appeal to “women-citizens” during an evening of political speeches at the Mariynski Theater on May 21, 1917. [8] It was subsequently reprinted in newspapers.

Bochkareva selected 300 recruits for her first Women’s Battalion, which was named the “Battalion of Death” — because the women who joined it promised to fight to the bitter end. Bochkareva insisted on one condition — no soldiers’ committees in her regiment: “I want actions, not phrases. Committees paralyse action by a flood of words.” [9] Reluctantly, Kerensky assented. The Battalion of Death became known for its merciless discipline. Sent out against the Germans in the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917, the women performed valiantly. They overtook the German trenches, but they were unable to influence the final outcome because they were left without support on the battlefield by the male units. Several other Women’s Battalions were formed in Bochkareva’s wake. On October 25, while her regiment was still at the front, another Women’s Battalion was the last army unit defending the Provisional Government, barricaded inside the Winter Palace, against the Bolsheviks.

Rheta Childe Dorr embraced the idea of “the woman with the gun,” escorting the Battalion of Death to the front. [10] In her memoir, she reflected:

[A] country that can produce such women cannot possibly be crushed forever. It may take time for it to recover from its present debauch of anarchism, but recover it surely will. And when it does it will know how to honor the women who went out to fight when the men ran home. [11]

Dorr was not the only American author, and not the only American woman author, to cover the events of the Russian Revolution. Several other American women journalists found themselves in Russia at various points throughout 1917. Among them were Florence Harper, Bessie Beatty, and Louise Bryant. Each woman found herself in the midst of “the great changes” for a different reason, but each contemplated the emergence of the Women’s Battalions in her writings.

Florence Harper, a reporter for Leslie’s Weekly, the oldest American illustrated newspaper, was sent to Russia together with the photographer Donald Thompson to cover the events of World War I on the Russian front. Harper and Thompson arrived in Petrograd, as Saint Petersburg was then known, in February 1917, and became eyewitnesses to the collapse of the Russian Empire, the chaos of the Revolution, and the birth of something entirely new. Since their official assignment was to focus on the pictorial documentation of events, they created separate visual and verbal records of what they saw in the form of Thompson’s photo-book Blood Stained Russia and Harper’s book Runaway Russia, both published in 1918. [12]

Both works opened with photographs of Maria Bochkareva, whom Thompson dubbed the “Joan of Arc of Russia.” Florence Harper, however, disapproved of the idea of women-soldiers. She reminded her readers that the goal of the Women’s Battalions was to inspire men to fight, but many male soldiers began to joke that if fighting had become women’s work, there was no need for them to take part in it. In this regard the Women’s Battalions had failed, although “it was a splendid failure.” [13] Harper felt that the enterprise was doomed from the very beginning. She attended the farewell mass before the Battalion of Death was sent to the front and felt that the service of these brave, sincere, and patriotic women was accepted by their country not in terms of a soldier’s duty, but in terms of an exceptional sacrifice. Instead of blessing the women and wishing them victory and a safe return home, the priest addressed them as “Women of Russia, who are offering yourselves as a sacrifice,” and assured them that their lives would not be given in vain. [14]

Harper was accused of running down her sex because she didn’t approve of women-soldiers. She defended herself by emphasizing that she thought very highly of women performing women’s jobs during wartime — for example, working in munitions factories and hospitals day after day, night after night, taking care of and uplifting the people around them. But when Russian women started doing men’s jobs, she claimed, they allowed their men to become irresponsible and weak. [15]

Like Harper and Thompson, Bessie Beatty was sent to Russia on assignment. In the spring of 1917, the San Francisco Bulletin asked Beatty to go abroad and write a series of articles entitled “Around the World in War Time.” To fulfill the assignment, Beatty traveled through Hawaii, Japan, China, and the Russian Far East, where she got on the Trans-Siberian Railway, arriving in Petrograd in June 1917. In her book The Red Heart of Russia, written one year later, Beatty looks back on those revolutionary months: “I had been alive at a great moment, and knew that it was great.” [16]

Beatty, too, visited the Battalion of Death at the front. What seems to have attracted her was not so much the heroism of individual women in wartime as the idea of transforming a vocation previously open only to men. Beatty was preoccupied with the “mass” factor of it. In exalted, sensationalizing tones, she marvels at the force of destiny, which is so central to the Russian worldview. “Destiny was preparing the most amazing single phenomenon of the war — the woman soldier,” Beatty wrote. “Not the isolated individual woman who has buckled on a sword and shouldered a gun through the pages of history, but the woman soldier banded and fighting en masse — machine-gun companies of her, battalions of her, scouting parties of her, whole regiments of her.” [17]

At the same time, Beatty still insisted on warfare as a masculine occupation, if not one available exclusively to men. Here, for example, is her romantic description of Bochkareva’s transformation from peasant woman to androgynous soldier:

From that day, Marie Bachkarova [sic] became simply “Bachkarova.” Her woman’s name and her long brown braids went first. She changed her trailing skirt with the ruffle on the bottom for soldier’s breeches tucked into the tops of high black boots. […] The strength and breadth, and the deep, full-toned voice of a man, were hers. Passing her on the street, you had to look three times to make sure she was not a man. [18]

Beatty’s text, too, is rife with allusions to Joan of Arc. At one point she recalls visiting a wounded Bochkareva in the hospital: “‘The men won’t fight!’ she repeated. Then, suddenly forgetful of the hole in her back, she raised herself quickly from the pillow. ‘Women — women will fight!’ she said. Exhausted, she fell back on her pillow. She had her big idea.” [19]

Despite her flair for the melodramatic, Beatty was the only writer to attend to the psychological traumas suffered by the women-soldiers. In her memoir, she reports an incident recounted to her by Maria Skridlova, Bochkareva’s adjutant: “There were wounded Germans in a hut […] We were ordered to take them prisoners. They refused to be taken. We had to throw hand-grenades in and destroy them. No; war is not easy for a woman.” [20] These Russians had proved, in Beatty’s opinion, that women had enough courage, endurance, and strength to fight. However, the question of whether they should fight remained open. [21]

Louise Bryant wrote that she had heard of the Battalion of Death while still in the United States, before coming to Russia. [22] When she followed her husband John Reed on his journey to Petrograd in September 1917, she began investigating the phenomenon. In Six Red Months in Russia, she provided firsthand testimony of the battalion that defended the Winter Palace on October 25 — luckily, with almost no harm to the women. [23] Later, she befriended several of the former women-soldiers, and their stories gave Bryant an insight into the social controversies that surrounded them.

When the female battalions were created, women of all backgrounds, from the nobility to the peasants, volunteered to join, most of them citing the desire to protect Mother Russia from the German invaders. But as the war went on, the internal political situation in Russia began to change dramatically. The Bolsheviks worked to shift the public’s understanding of whom “the enemy” was, away from the Germans onto the bourgeoisie. Russian soldiers, dreaming only of an end to the war, began to fraternize with German soldiers, going so far as to drink together in the trenches. Faced with this kind of disorder at the front, Bochkareva insisted on preserving military discipline and continuing to treat the external enemy as such. When news of the Bolsheviks’ victory in Petrograd reached the front, the soldiers greeted it with great enthusiasm. In her 1919 autobiography, about which more later, Bochkareva recalled:

“Peace! Peace!!” thundered through the air.

“We will leave the front now! We are going home! Hurrah for Lenine! Hurrah for Trotzky! Hurrah for Kolontay!”

“Land and freedom! Bread! Down with the bourgeoisie!”

As the celebration was attaining new climaxes, the ears of the multitude suddenly caught the sound of the shooting at my sector. The men were struck with frenzy.

“Kill her! Kill them all! We have peace now!” they raved, and stampeded in our direction. [24]

The “Russian Joan of Arc,” a holy woman whose “heart [was] bleeding for unhappy Russia” was proclaimed “the witch” by her fellow male soldiers. [25] After 20 of her female soldiers were lynched by the angry male mob, nothing remained except to disband the Battalion. [26] This was done secretly, by providing “the girls” with women’s attire and directing them, one by one, “to a score of scattered stations and villages.” [27]

Some time later, Louise Bryant interviewed several of the women-veterans, whom she found living in brutal poverty and misery. They felt used and misled. They denounced Bochkareva as the voice of the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, and said they were ready to cooperate with the Bolsheviks. [28] Bochkareva herself was detained and questioned by Lenin and Trotsky personally. She pointed out that she was a simple peasant woman, not interested in politics, and that she did not object to a society predicated on social equality, although she couldn’t accept “mobocracy” in practice. [29] She was permitted to return to her native Tomsk in Siberia to live a regular life.

In 1918, however, the Civil War broke out. Bochkareva was asked by old officer friends to cross Bolshevik lines in order to reach the “White” — that is, anti-Bolshevik — General Lavr Kornilov, who was operating in the Don region, in order to find out what his plans were. Bochkareva stated from the very beginning that she had no interest in participating in the killing of her fellow citizens on either side, Red or White, but she accepted the assignment since it called for information only. Crossing the country to get to the Caucasus, Bochkareva saw unspeakable atrocities. She reached Kornilov but was arrested by the Bolsheviks on her way back and sentenced to be executed. Miraculously, one of the local prominent Bolsheviks recognized her. He happened to be a soldier whose life she had saved while serving in the Imperial Army. He put his neck on the line and convinced the other Bolsheviks to let her go.

Meanwhile, the Germans were advancing at the front. Still called to protect Mother Russia, Bochkareva decided to reach out to the Allies for military help. Under the pretext of visiting her British friend, the suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, in London, Bochkareva crossed the country to the Far East and arrived in San Francisco by ship. [30] Philanthropist and activist Florence Harriman arranged for Bochkareva to meet President Woodrow Wilson on July 10, 1918, and Bochkareva begged him to intervene in Russia. [31] Theodore Roosevelt, although he said he did not believe in women going to war, invited Maria Bochkareva to luncheon at his estate, Oyster Bay. From the moment she arrived, he was impressed and “saw in her remarkable character abounding in natural wisdom and determination.” [32] Bochkareva told Roosevelt of the wretched conditions under which her fellow women-soldiers were living, and he later sent her $1,000 from his Nobel Peace Prize “to the relief of thirty brave women of the Battalion of Death.” [33]

Although numerous reporters sought to interview Bochkareva, she refused them all. But she had stayed in touch with Rheta Childe Dorr, who had published several articles about her in various American newspapers, and spoke to her again. Bochkareva confessed “that she would never fight with women soldiers again,” as she became convinced “that women are, with few exceptions, unfit for warfare.” She shared that some of her women-soldiers “turned on her,” and that she “had turned bitterly on some of them.” [34] Nevertheless, Bochkareva still dreamt of serving Russia and ameliorating the terrible living conditions of some of her veterans.

Since there were many rumors about her, Bochkareva decided to write down her biography. Dorr connected her to a Russian-born émigré journalist named Isaac Don Levine. Over three weeks in the summer of 1918, Bochkareva told him in Russian, and he translated into English, the story of her life. Slightly later, at the beginning of 1919, her memoir Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier was published in New York and London. (In 2016, the book was reedited and published by Paul E. Richardson under the new title Maria’s War: A Soldier’s Autobiography, with additional information in the introduction and afterword.)

Bochkareva then traveled to the United Kingdom, where she was granted an audience with King George V. In September 1918, she returned to Russia and unsuccessfully tried to form another women’s regiment in the city of Arkhangelsk, not far from Petrograd. In April 1919, she came back to Tomsk, found her elderly parents in deep poverty, and reached out to Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, then the commander of the Siberian White Army, asking him to discharge her. Instead, Kolchak asked her to organize a female sanitary brigade to care for his wounded soldiers. Bochkareva did as she was asked. When Kolchak’s army retreated from the area shortly thereafter, she returned to Tomsk, where she presented herself to the local Soviet authorities and offered her services. These were denied, but she was allowed to go home. Not long after, she was arrested, tried in Krasnoyarsk, and shot on May 16, 1920. [35] Astoundingly, she was only 30 years old. [36]

Maria Bochkareva hated rumors, but inevitably, many misconceptions surround her extraordinary life and work. One of these concerns the total number of women-soldiers Bochkareva had been able to recruit. Florence Harper wrote that 20,000 Russian women had enlisted as soldiers — a figure 10 times higher than the one given by Bochkareva herself. [37] Bessie Beatty mentioned 5,000 women soldiers in the fall of 1917. [38] Finally, Louise Bryant wrote that less than 3,000 women had been recruited in all; she was disappointed because she had thought the movement was larger. [39]

Regardless of the figures, however, the Battalions held a different symbolic value for each of the American women. For suffragist and labor activist Rheta Childe Dorr, the Russian women’s willingness to bear the burden of military service alongside men strengthened women’s claim to participation in public, political life. Florence Harper, Bessie Beatty, and Louise Bryant were more interested in exploring the social aspects of the phenomenon. Bochkareva herself stressed the distinctly religious, “Messianic” dimension of her story. She never entertained the possibility of the military as a regular occupation for women. Instead, she was motivated by what she described as “the rumblings of the great collision” that promised “a new world coming to life, a purged world, a happier and Godlier one.” [40] Bochkareva and the majority of her fellow women-soldiers were far less interested in fighting a war than in protecting Mother Russia. For them, it was a defensive mission, a necessity, a spiritual call. When Bochkareva visited the United States, a number of American radicals called her a counterrevolutionary. “That was a grave injustice to her,” Levine wrote later. “She is ignorant of politics, contemptuous of intrigue, and spiritually far and above party strife. Her mission in life was to free Russia from the German yoke.” [41]

It’s no surprise, then, that all mention of Maria Bochkareva was erased by the communist regime. She was posthumously rehabilitated only in 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed. [42] Fortunately, the story of the first female battalions had been preserved in Bochkareva’s own memoirs and in the thrilling accounts of American female journalists. No one could have imagined at the time that the tradition of women-soldiers would be revived in Soviet Russia just two decades later, and on a much larger scale, with the beginning of World War II. The testimony of these later women-soldiers would also be preserved in print, in Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (1985).

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Angela Shpolberg is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and Center Associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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[1] Rheta Childe Dorr, Inside the Russian Revolution. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1917.

[2] Dorr, Inside the Russian Revolution, 50.

[3] Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 3.

[4] Bochkareva’s name has been spelled differently by different sources: Mareea Botchkareva (Rheta Childe Dorr, Inside the Russian Revolution, 51), Marie Bachkarova (Bessie Beatty, The Red Heart of Russia, 90), even Leona Botchkarova — because her patronymic name was Maria Leontievna (Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia, 210).

[5] Maria Bochkareva, Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1919, 65.

[6] Paul E. Richardson, Introduction to Maria Bochkareva, Maria’s War: A Soldier’s Autobiography. Montpelier: Russian Life Books, 2016, 9.

[7] Bochkareva, Yashka, 156–157.

[8] Bochkareva, 162.

[9] Bochkareva, 173.

[10] Dorr, Inside the Russian Revolution, 50.

[11] Dorr, 51.

[12] Captain Donald C. Thompson, Blood Stained Russia, with an Introduction by Florence MacLeod Harper. New York: Leslie-Judge Company Publishers, 1918. Florence MacLeod Harper, Runaway Russia. New York: The Century Co., 1918.

[13] Harper, 167.

[14] Harper, 171.

[15] Harper, 168–169.

[16] Bessie Beatty, The Red Heart of Russia. New York: The Century Company, 1918, 480.

[17] Beatty, 91.

[18] Beatty, 92.

[19] Beatty, 94.

[20] Beatty, 110.

[21] Beatty, 114.

[22] Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia: An Observer’s Account Of Russia Before and During the Proletarian Dictatorship. New York: George Doran Company, 1918, 210.

[23] Bryant, 212.

[24] Maria Bochkareva, Yashka, 255.

[25] Bochkareva, 180 and 260-261.

[26] Bochkareva, 256.

[27] Bochkareva, 261–262.

[28] Bryant, 218.

[29] Isaac Don Levine, Introduction to Maria Bochkareva, Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier. New York: 1919, xi.

[30] Levine, xii.

[31] Richardson, Preface to Maria’s War, 28.

[32] Isaac Don Levine, “With Authors: Yashka.” The New York Times. February 16, 1919, 81.

[33] Roosevelt’s Estimate of Botchkareva. Nashville Tennessean. March 24, 1919, 4.

[34] Rheta Childe Dorr, “Botchkareva, Woman Soldier, Tells of Failure of the Russians.” Indianapolis Star. May 30, 1918, 2.

[35] Richardson, Afterword to Bochkareva, Maria’s War, 261–263.

[36] Bochkareva, Yashka, 5.

[37] Harper, 169.

[38] Beatty, 112.

[39] Bryant, 212.

[40] Bochkareva, Yashka, 65.

[41] Levine, ix.

[42] Richardson, Afterword to Maria’s War, 263.


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